Invasion of the Body Snatchers
(SPOILERS) Philip Kaufman’s 1978 science fiction classic is responsible for several firsts, as well as continuing and culminating a number of the decade’s abiding themes. The most obvious of the former is that it began a trend for science fiction remakes, one that (as Kim Newman notes in the documentary on the Blu-ray release) hoodwinked audiences into thinking they’d all be of the same high quality (and for a while, they were). It also made a point of redressing B-movie material with design realism (which would be expanded upon exponentially the following year in Alien) and a keen appreciation of character naturalism (perhaps the latter was not quite such a forte of Alien). Additionally, Invasion of the Body Snatchers fully embraces the post–Planet of the Apes trend for dystopian sci-fi that was in the process of being trampled by wunderkinds du jour Spielberg and Lucas. Through delivering an alien apocalypse by way of the paranoid conspiracy thriller, perhaps the period’s most distinctive sub-genre, Invasion of the Body Snatchers comes across as something of a final word on the subject. After this, all that was left was satire (Winter Kills) or undermining the entire reflex to see nefarious plots at the behest of the powers-that-be (Blow Out).
This was still a period where ideas could be worn on movie sleeves without any shame. So it is that, while Body Snatchers’ last half hour is little more than a very well staged extended chase, what precedes it displays the kind of finely judged character work one would expect from Kaufman’s bedfellows, the Altmans and the Ashbys, but rarely found in science fiction itself (Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, a couple of years earlier, might be a particularly psychedelic exception). That solid groundwork, where characters interact with subtlety, and quirkiness, and don’t necessarily need to say what they are thinking or doing to express what they are thinking or doing, infuses the picture with an atmosphere that makes the threat that much more tangible and disturbing.
One of Kaufman’s lines of reasoning in justifying the remake, that now they were drawing on parts of Jack Finney’s source novel The Body Snatchers that Don Siegel’s original had omitted, showing off more of the aliens’ replication process, sounds, to today’s ears, like the kind of well-worn guff that triggers warning bells. So that’s the main selling point? But he’s doing himself and writer W.D. Richter (who would go on to pen John Carpenter’s delirious deconstruction of macho posturing Big Trouble in Little China) a disservice to couch it in those terms. Sure, Invasion sets the stage for the ‘80s invasion of grue and goo, and gives considerable screen time to the pod transformation process. But that the indulgence in effects work is justified by the characterisations embedded during the previous hour. We care about these people as we see their essences slowly crumble away.
There’s a reasonable argument to be waged that the effects spectacles of this era got carried away with their own innovation, be it the light show of Star Trek: The Motion Picture or the werewolf prosthetics in The Howling and American Werewolf in London. Certainly, in the case of the latter and Body Snatchers, it works in terms of character. And in Body Snatchers there’s the added factor that what’s occurring is all so damn weird (to be fair, there’s an element of that in Werewolf, but it’s seen through the gauze of John Landis’ mischievous humour). It’s the similar kind of intrusion of the other on the every day we saw from Roeg and Sutherland in Don’t Look Now. The opening shots show an alien planet, one that could have been dressed for a Star Trek episode. Yet there’s something else too. There aren’t any bug-eyed monsters. There are wisps and wafts of something. Spores resembling cosmic jellyfish are carried through the vacuum of space. This is an invasion with one foot in the “natural world”, and the concentration on the simple but effective during the opening sets up the matter-of-fact responses that follow. Having descended top Earth, we see the gel-like substance settled on trees and leaves. It’s the most mundane of intrusions, but all the more malignant for that (we know the tiny is potent from The Andromeda Strain, and this takes its opening cues from there).
In the background is the throbbing menace of imminent eco-disaster. As Veroncia Cartwright’s Nancy Bellicec, the most hippy-ish of the protagonists, notes; “We eat junk, and we breathe junk”. This is a toxic society, one ripe for infiltrating and usurping. The opening beats of a movie like this are usually the most important, informing the tone and atmosphere. John Carpenter or George Romero pictures of this period waste no time in establishing their horror tropes, that something is seriously upset in the particular section of society on display. And like a zombie movie (what are Body Snatchers if not slightly less messy and more refined zombies?) the signs of something not quite right, something off kilter, are present from the first. There’s Robert Duvall dressed as a priest on a swing in a playground. Now of course the connotation is a different kind of unsavoury, but here it’s just uncanny.
Movies of this period are willing to take the time, sure in the certainty that the build up will be worth the wait. Alien the following year is prtistine example of this. But Body Snatchers isn’t as calculated in its shock making. It wants to engage in more cerebral thrills, and it’s probably why it didn’t become a phenomenon in the same way as Alien. It was nevertheless very successful in its own quiet way (more than Kaufman was used to or would be used to for quite a while), and very influential. It’s interesting to hear the director’s commentary refer to it as a low budget film, because that’s never a thought that occurs while viewing it. The effects still, for the most part, stand up; Michael Chapman’s noirish cinematography makes the entire city of San Francisco a giant studio stage, peculiarised with every grabbed shot. The best of the successor remakes wouldn’t be lavish affairs either, although The Thing had the luxury of extensive planning and effects experimentation. The Fly is almost the inverse of Body Snatchers, in that it comes prior to Cronenberg getting the hang of a non-hermetic environment; great as it is many respects, it really feels like it’s made on a set, and that the occupied spaces don’t exist in the/a real world.
Another means of distinguishing Kaufman’s Snatchers from the original is location. This is the more pervasively crucial change, cited by the director as the point where they cracked how to approach the material (in the first few drafts it kept the small town Americana of the 1956 version). Moved to San Francisco (Kaufman’s home turf), the canvas opens up, and a multitude of contemporary mores and concerns are ready and willing to merge with the space plants. San Francisco was in the process of transforming from hippy haven to corporate technological mecca, a consumer-driven environment betraying all those high hopes of a better world. What better then, than to broach the subject in terms of those who would transform it still further? Kaufman is clearly of a mindset that passive receptivity to a mass-produced, disposable comfort lifestyle parallels the pod like persona. And yet, one might argue pod-ness is the only reliable treatment for those faced with the unnatural surroundings of city life; the claustrophobia, paranoia and dehumanisation are at lest rendered into a form of serene functionality. Kaufman is abundantly clear that the problem of alienation isn’t suddenly mnifesting with the onset of the pods (hence Nimoy’s character and his thriving brain-care self-help guru-ry), which is why his approach is more effective than many a subtext-weak science fiction movie. The pods as metaphors inspire some particularly on-the-nose commentary on what is becoming of us all (again through the lens of Nimoy’s psychoanalysis), just as the visual choices serve to emphasise a society breaking down (or cohering anew). The cracked windscreen of Matthew’s (Sutherland’s) car recalls the poster for Dirty Harry’s The Enforcer or Dustin Hoffman’s broken glasses in Straw Dogs; our hero’s relationship with the greater world is now broken and distorted, and it’s this perspective (windscreen) that carries us from destination to destination throughout.
Matthew: They don’t want to hear about the accident.
Jack: Right, of course. It’s a big conspiracy.
Matthew: What’s a conspiracy?
The conspiracy, as inevitably do most conspiracies, involves an attempt to wrest control of power (or society as a whole). If you trace the line from Hollywood’s address of counterculture ideals, it consigned them to the dustbin (“We blew it”) almost as soon as the pot of money to be made selling such sentiments went cold (The Monkees). The next decade continued the trip into bleakness of a (western) world that was fundamentally busted. We got to witness its destruction (Beneath the Planet of the Apes), its ruination (Silent Running). And this in era inviting the assassination of anyone who attempted to impede the march of capital (The Parallax View, with its corporate black ops, Three Days of the Condor, where the only victory is to get out completely). All the President’s Men presents victory as breaking a story, not righting the order (now impossible). Cynicism takes over not because it’s a knee-jerk response, but because it’s the only feasible one to a political and social landscape that doesn’t work for its population but rather exists for the machine that drives it.
The matter-of-fact recognition that this is all a big conspiracy by Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum) comes from having embedded himself as an opposing force to the main thrust of society. He and Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) may have jobs, but Jack nurses dreams of becoming a successful poet while Nancy and they just about retain a hippy kind of living (their mud baths business). They haven’t been completely absorbed by the mainstream, and are comfortable pronouncing alternative views. But Matthew is very much part of the establishment, and his anti-intuitive responses to the threat throughout must go against the flow of anyone who had encountered a conspiracy theory over the previous 15 years. Indeed, this is one area where the picture perhaps falls down, although the hero who cannot conceive the vastness of what he is up against is nothing new (The Parallax View). As with The Parallax View, the outcome is uniformly bleak. Matthew persists in the belief that someone somewhere will listen and oppose this threat. When realisation dawns (“How did you know my name? I didn’t tell you my name.”) the enemy is already outside. And even later, knowing how pervasive the invasion has become, he cannot resist the false hope that music gives of human contact. Matthew is ultimately defeated by his own self-delusion; his lack of paranoia and cynicism. In contrast, Nancy survives as long as she does because she is credulous of any far-out notion.
Kaufman allows for conflict in sympathies in the pre-pod environment; he isn’t interested in the clear-cut. Matthew takes a little too much pleasure in his government health inspector job. For him it is less about ensuring public safety than the reward of shutting people down (“It’s a caper? Eat it”, he encourages the hotel owner who insists the rat turd Matthew has just found is nothing of the sort). Like his younger friends, Matthew is ostensibly working to improve the lives of those around him (the aim is a healthy body, and in Nimoy’s case a healthy mind; though its telling that Nancy’s client is a whale of a man), but he is aligned with the establishment. His thinking is grounded in logical processes that view Elizabeth’s (Brooke Adams) fears as ones that can be easily remedied with a bit of common sense. But for all his conformity, it’s perhaps Matthew’s very doggedness, seen in the first scene, that willingness to be disruptive, that sets him apart from the easily pod-ified. And for all the talk that his relationship with Elizabeth is purely platonic, there’s the sense that he is willing to play the long waiting game with her, delivering her to a friend who will tell her what she really wants is to break up from her other half (with this, Don’t Look Now and Klute, Sutherland is something of an icon of the understated and unlikely romantic lead during the decade).
By the time Body Snatchers arrived, the inevitability of cyclic behaviour requires disenchantment to be replaced with shiny baubles of hope. There can be only so much investment in the harsh meat hook realities can be taken before a restatement of the mythic is needed. And so Kaufman’s contemporaries, the resolutely apolitical Lucas and Spielberg, were on the crest of a changing landscape and the attitudes. Which is not to say it wasn’t a trickle down effect, and you still got plenty of material with something to say (a blanket change across the face of the industry is generally an overstatement, choosing to ignore the great – or shallow – movies that present the counterpoint to any era of prevailing content or pure blockbusters). But Kaufman was dealing with a specific genre that had just been plundered. Spielberg’s hopeful paean to all things UFO (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) left aside the cattle mutilations and anal probing, and even folded the essential government conspiracy into a great human, spiritual quest for contact with the unknown. I’ll defend the picture to the hilt, one of the few really great movies by the director, but there’s little doubt that it co-opts many of the era’s most rousing elements for a benign vision of the universe. This a USA where an everyman is allowed to go off with the aliens just because he wants to; no one wielding power is standing in his way (it’s also a picture that allows its hero to leave his family without deserving recrimination, something Spielberg has since voiced regret over but now suggests an admirable lack of concern with his subsequent carefully controlled packaged material).
So Snatchers, despite being released on the back of the Star Wars and Close Encounters science-fiction boon, has a very different attitude. Its director pointedly takes a pot shot at the literalness of these movies (“Well why not a space flower? Why do we always expect metal ships?”), but I don’t think he’s being a killjoy for the sake of it; the upbeat, inspirational tone of The Right Stuff (for all its complexity) would suggest he’s not some kind of irredeemable grouch. The dispirited attitude suited the requirements of Body Snatchers, and enabled an ending the studio was unwilling to go with for the original (it’s post-fact coda). And because this is “smart” sci-fi, with adults behaving like adults, it went down very well with critics (Pauline Kael adored it; while her eviscerations are often her most entertaining reads, her paeans also score highly). Much, much better than the grudging technical respect but dismissal of emptiness of ideas and non-characters that occurred with Carpenter’s The Thing or Scott’s Blade Runner; in those cases time and an ever-broadening fan base has rehabilitated them. Body Snatchers hasn’t enjoyed the same kind of afterlife (although the appropriation of the scream in Abel Ferrara’s version, and the rather pedestrian use of in the recent The World’s End signify that it has at least partially entered the broader consciousness). It doesn’t punch enough crowd-pleasing buttons, perhaps, and because the environment is everything to its overall effect it feels very much of its era (in a wholly good way).
Kaufman was no stranger to science fiction and fantasy, except in terms of turning in a finished product. He has a story credit on Raiders of the Lost Ark, having worked on it at its inception and suggesting the Ark as the central artifact. More crucially, he came on board the Star Trek movie when it was Planet of the Titans (featuring the pre-Greek gods and time travel back to the dawn of man). When this was sidestepped, Kaufman fashioned a story with Spock as a captain in a battle against a Klingon opponent. Failing to anticipate the sea change of Star Wars just around the corner, Paramount cancelled the project, repurposed it for TV and only then – with Close Encounters confirming that big screen sci-fi was a very definite go – flipped it back as a movie again. All of this had at least enabled the director to develop a good working relationship with Leonard Nimoy (he made it clear he wouldn’t be in the TV version), who is able to play on the recognition of Spock’s scrupulous logician with a character (Dr David Kibner) who has the posture of one with authoritative insight but (in human form) is merely a self-serving charlatan out to impress his own agenda on his patients (rather than paying any real attention to what they are trying to communicate).
Policeman: My wife reads your books. It changed her life.
In 2002’s TV series The Century of the Self Adam Curtis had a fair bit to say, all of it extremely erudite and persuasive, about the transition from the ‘60s mood of change to the gradual turn inwards during the ‘70s, and the idea that, wasn’t it much more responsible to attend to your own problems before attempting to sort out the world? It was a period spawning all manner of self help therapies, from primal scream onwards. Dr Kibner’s San Francisco is more likely to endorse the shallow sticking plaster approach to self-improvement (ironically, he uses the term sticking plaster to define his attempt to help Elizabeth). We all trust Mr Spock, don’t we? So what he says must be right. The downside of a willingness to embrace new ideas is that when the excitement and vitality dies down the withdrawal symptoms are more painful.
Kibner steps in with glib psychologising (“People are stepping in and out of relationships too fast, because they don’t want the responsibility”) to explain the alienation caused by aliens stepping into relationships. I had wondered in retrospect if Kibner wasn’t intended to be a pod from the start, but it’s clear from Kaufman’s commentary that he’s just a bit of a prick riding on a cult of personality when we first see him. He doesn’t listen to Elizabeth but impresses his pre-formed opinions on her. It’s hard not to see Kaufman taking sides against quick mental fix treatments and shallow materialist solutions. When Kibner hypothesises that this strange behaviour is “Like some sort of hallucinatory flu going around. People seem to get over it in a day or two”, he’s not only showing the limits of his technique by being unable to perceive what is really going on (he doesn’t have the imagination, the gist being that devotion to any discipline that limits our receptivity to new concepts is a bad thing) but has to couch his opinion in the kind of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook he’d doubtless mock under different circumstances (coming from someone else). People are falling for his sideshow, unquestioningly lapping it up (the mayor’s a patient), but Kibner cant even perceive that the very essence of his subjects is being removed, until its too late and his is too (although, his change is remarkably minor).
So we fall in with perspective of Jack’s angry young man. He’s uncontrolled, exasperated and exasperating. He comes on with the attitude of the misunderstood poet, a raging ball of unappreciated ego (“I’m trying to change the world to fit people” he proclaims) who takes six months to pick one sentence while Kibner just churns them out (“Kibner’s ideas are pure garbage!”) The Bellicecs are a blast of fresh air, a dying breed who will find it increasingly difficult to survive in the corporatised world. Sure, they’re kooky or flaky or incredibly vain, but they haven’t completely given up. In contrast, Elizabeth’s existence is flat. In a sense Kibner isn’t wrong about the subtle undercurrent in her life, prior to Geoffrey’s change. Her other half lives isolated in the world of his headphones, while she snatches her moments of emotional sustenance from her platonic relationship with Matthew; all deep comments and flirtatious asides.
Matthew, meanwhile, buys into Kibner’s bullshit; he doesn’t believe Elizabeth at first, but expresses concern as a friend. He has a sense of humour, of course (he tells Elizabeth that Kibner could eliminate possible alternative explanations for hubby, such as “whether he had become a Republican”) It’s only when Matthew begins to note the evidence for himself (the man at the laundry changes from worriedly exclaiming “She wrong – that not my wife. No, no. Different” to ”She better now. Much better now”) that he is forced to acknowledge something is amiss. Jack’s nervous resistance to authority (“Don’t ever give your name to cops”) finally begins to rub off on him. It may be shocking, because we come to identify so much with his humanity, but it’s entirely appropriate that Jack should be on the receiving end of the most violent demise; or rather, pod Jack at any rate. It’s proportionate punishment for just how much he has changed, now agreeing with Kibner (“You’ve never agreed with him in your life before!” exclaims Matthew).
The relationship between Matthew and Elizabeth is set up through naturalistic, unextravagant exchanges; he cooks for her, she does that thing with her eyes (all four protagonists have large, marvellously expressive eyes). And the performances complement each other wonderfully. Sutherland is naturally slightly off so he fits interestingly into more classical roles where anyone else would tend to the bland. It’s interesting that he chose to give Goldblum a tough time on the shoot, an assumption of his right to mentor the actor as he had been in turn by Lee Marvin (seems a bit bastardly, but there you go; actors eh?); the latter would take on a not dissimilar non mainstream aspect to his leading man duties in the next decade or so. After a dry spell mid decade, Sutherland was making something of a comeback with leading parts in a variety of interesting movies. By this point he’d more than paid his dues and was an elder of a new generation.
Adams never really took as a leading lady (although she is instantly recognisable, this was pretty much it for her) but Cartwright was on the crest of a wave of crazy hysterics. Except that, while both Nancy and Lambert in Alien get a bit hyper, Lambert is next to useless (certainly, the way Scott gets rid of her in the film is a sign of laziness, almost as if he’d had enough). Nancy on the other hand is smart and insightful. Her capacity for the bizarre keeps her alive. Rather than cowering in a heap, she runs after her beloved when he makes a reckless show of bravado. And survives. Unlike Matthew and Elizabeth she has the resourcefulness to survive on her own (“They can be fooled. Don’t show any emotions. Hide your feelings”; ripped off by Shaun of the Dead to amusing effect) and when they freak out she elects not to run and so remains free for longer. It’s a bit of an injustice to her character then, at the expense of servicing a superior chilly and iconic moment thanks to Sutherland’s malleable facial muscles, that she should be so careless and fall apart gibbering uncontrollably in the last scene (one might argue Matthew’s decision not to inform her of Jack’s fate was a fear of this kind of response, but it’s probably more to do with stabbing his double in the neck).
Kibler: The sooner, the better.
For a film so caught in the embrace of the society of its time, it’s a welcome icing on the cake that its effects stand up so well. There are those movies (rightly) feted as effects innovators (the aforementioned werewolf flicks and The Thing) but Body Snatchers doesn’t really have that profile. Perhaps because it keeps an icy distance from body horror for the most part (aside from the moment where Matthew smashes in his double). We see the other as separate and cadaverous. We see the nose bleeds that profuse from those with whom the link has been severed. But the grue is, for the most part, not tangible and recognisable until the process is complete. And when the take-over has ended, the humans crumble to dust. Kauman is keener on subtlety and insidious creeping alteration; the gel, the plants, the strangely peaceful mummies not yet taken full-form. The exception is mutation resulting from Matthew disrupting the replication of the tramp and his dog; it’s the clearest through line between this and The Thing, with its freak show of garbled semi-recognisable inhumanity. Done so very simply, by sticking a head mask over a hound, its more identifiably rudimentary with the passage of time, but it still has a ready and definite shock value; it’s that lolling tongue that does it, sticking through the mask and unifying the fake and real.
Kibner: There’s no body there. Face it, Bellicec. You’ve got some friends who like to play practical jokes.
Jack: I don’t have any friends, Dr Kilbler.
Kibner: Then some enemies.
The film’s two major effects set pieces occur in the Bellicec’s mud bath house and and the garden of Matthew’s house. The first, for its sense of discovery and atmosphere is possibly the superior; the hanging curtains and the threat of sleep, the suspicion that falls on Kibler (after he goes to investigate alone, the evidence mysteriously vanishes through and open window with one of those ever-present garbage trucks on the other side). It has more narrative suction than the long play of Sutherland snoozing. But the latter is a tour-de-force of slow-burn effects and aural weirdness that would (unfortunately) ignite the trend of encouraging nothing but prosthetic spectacle. Of course, without emotional and plot cement holding it together this sort of thing just becomes a surfeit of rubber and slime. It’s as much the smallness of what we see here; the tendrils entwining themselves around Matthew’s hand. The benign nature of the plant becomes something to provoke fear and suspicion (Nancy plays music in the baths because “It’s wonderful for my plants. They just love it “).
Aside from these scenes, the significant physical transformations relate to Elizabeth, first in her home and then in the tall grass by the harbour. In both instances we see her naked, and Kaufman (who later becomes more identified with his interest in sexual mores as they propel narrative) appears to make a very definite choice to invert the obvious. The warmth and attraction between Matthew and Elizabeth is clothed, chaste. When she is unclothed there is no fecundity or eroticism; she offers, in the final encounter, an empty invitation to carnality, a calculated beckoning to what the pods understand of the human impulse. Later we see her walking unclothed through the exploding warehouse, and she takes on the manner of the unselfconscious machine; not so far from a proto-Terminator in her single-minded of purpose.
Kibner: Who are you waking up now, Matthew?
Michael Chapman has managed not to win an Oscar despite photographing Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and a number of other Kaufman pictures (who can forget the gang fight in The Wanderers?), perhaps because his talents have been consigned to less auspicious pictures over the last couple of decades. He and Kaufman devised a noirish look for the picture (although shot in colour), and filled the frames and design with invention. It has something of the natural light, darkness and paranoia of the Alan J Pakula conspiracy thrillers shot by Gordon Willis. But as Chapman put it, he has fun too. There are Dutch angles everywhere, there’s copious use of handheld camera to unsettle the viewer, and low angles make familiar spaces unusual and off-putting. The mindset is to make the familiar unfamiliar; a conversation between Elizabeth and her other half is shot from the corridor; a discussion at a book signing takes place with the subjects reflected in a distorting mirror; there are strange inserts such as a telephone flex retracting into a wall and a spinning chair evacuated by its occupant. A man has his face pressed against a frosted door window, Michael Chapman cameos cleaning an office in the dark. Then there are the everyday, unannounced shots of genuine passersby, nothing odd about them in and off themselves but in context they give off an air of something unusual. And the garbage trucks. At other time the imagery is more classically nightmarish; a throng of hands pushing around the sides of a garden gate, as if the undead are massing; the elongated shadows of our protagonists fleeing beneath a bypass at night. Chapman and Kaufman can get away with all the attention grabbing tics and quirks because of the robustness of the actual locations .
The sound design received a lot of attention at the time, shown off as a Dolby stereo showcase (and adored by Kael). Jazzman Denny Zeitlin’s score (he found it such a stressful experience he hasn’t returned to cinema since) is a tremendous piece of working, blending seamlessly with the pulsing prodding sound effects of Star Wars man Ben Burtt. The result is the eerie musical equivalent of a creaking door; ominous and alien. And then there’s the pod scream, an augmented pig squeal that is at once simple and ingenious.
Jack: They’re not coming from outer space, Nancy.
Jack: What are you talking about, a space flower?
Nancy: Well why not a space flower? Why do we always expect metal ships?
Jack: I’ve never expected metal ships
It might be suggested that, in his desire to grab the zeitgeist, Kaufman doesn’t quite grip the bull by the horns in other ways. The compressed time frame means the idea of falling asleep, in spite of the number of times it is stressed as something to be avoided or something that is inevitable, never quite becomes the terrifying act that it might be (Wes Craven would explore the horror potential more fully with A Nightmare on Elm Street, but even he doesn’t fully get to grips with it is an enemy that must be warded off at all costs). We get a few speed pills thrown into the mix, but Kaufman is keener on his anti-alien horror. As he stresses, they don’t come in metal ships, and they couldn’t be further from overt distortions of human forms (Alien and The Thing). So Nancy’s desire to fit this in with the ancient astronauts of von Daniken feels a little one-size-fits-all (“Oh of course, this is just the same way these rocket ships landed thousands of years ago so those space men could have sex with monkeys and apes and create the human race. It’s happening now”). Even then, its an effective means to undercut expectations (Palmer in The Thing would pronounce similar theories, but his horror arrives in only the clothing of a metal ship) If you did such a speech todat, it come from an irritatingly clichéd conspiracy nut (out-there theories have become both more mainstream and simultaneously more vilified) – but you think of Nancy as a real person (even with the hindsight of Cartwright in Alien). She is the loopiest but the most imaginative of the group and so she survives and adapts for the longest – the others react as if the world should eventually order itself, when it is reordering around them. While Nancy is a definite type, she isn’t turned into a cliché.
As for the aliens’ pronouncements, there’s nothing especially new (“You’ll be born again into an untroubled world, free of anxiety, fear, hate”). Yet, divorced from the idyll of small town America, there is an added frisson of, well maybe they’re not wholly wrong; what has the city, a thriving pool of discontent, really done for them? We’re told the pods “came here from a dying world… from planet to planet pushed on by solar winds”. Like The Thing, their purpose is very straightforward (“We adapt and survive. The function of life is survival”); the replication, as with that film, is not necessarily a function of intelligence per se. It comes from an instinct, and the mind of the host organism is replicated to serve the alien purpose. Kaufman and Richter leave more than enough open to debate. Do these pods learn as they move on? That they do not appear to be a fully hive mind may indicate not; at least, one does not automatically appear to know what another is thinking. And if each pod is new, they may not have The Thing’s capacity to carry experience over from form to form (although again, how much of that is functional and how much is self-aware is questionable). Kibner’s “There’s no need for hate now. Or love” does rather evoke the Star Trek kind of ethos Kirk would rail against, but in Kaufman’s dysfunctional world it isn’t so much about humanity being great and worth saving as it is our inevitable lowering and debasement to the point where maybe we don’t deserve to be preserved.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is undoubtedly one of the smartest science fiction movies of the last 40 years and, unless you’re only capable of experiencing a movie through the eyes of Michael Bay, it probably wont seem like it has aged at all over the decades. But that’s not to say it isn’t guilty of a few expediencies. You wonder why, if Kibner’s pod is able to deliver such a note perfect, scrutinisable rendition of its original, Elizabeth’s suddenly weird-staring, suited and anal, pod boyfriend could not at least put some effort in. Sure, it works as a comment on Kibner himself (he was half pod already), but his facility for the correct emotional and psychological responses suggests either that some pods are more equal than others or that the makers were in places a bit too keen to emphasise what the audience could probably understand with a little less cajoling. Then there’s Matthew who, as noted, makes the sort of fundamental mistakes no one who has read sci-fi or seen a paranoia thriller would replicate. That’s forgivable as a contrast to Jack’s cynicism, but later he is called on to act movie dumb (“I’ll go down there. I’ll be right back”) while Elizabeth succumbs to the most banal of plot devices (she twists her ankle). Still, this is small change in the bigger picture.
Body Snatchers arguably takes the blame for igniting the remake cameo, with both Kevin McCarthy (20 years later and still exclaiming “They’re coming!” to anyone who won’t listen) and Don Siegel (as a taxi driver). McCarthy’s appearance is a nice nod to how the original was supposed to end before the studio mandated a happier exit. Kaufman pulls an even darker gag than having him raving to deaf ears for two decades by promptly having him killed off-screen (it should be noted that while Kaufman’s movie is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it is most certainly laced through with a twisted sense of humour). My recollection is that I saw the different versions in their correct order (some have transposed the first two, depending on their age). While the original is a good, solid movie, it didn’t capture my imagination in the same way as, say The Thing from Another World (which has less resonance, but more instant thrills for an impressionable young mind).
Kaufman’s film really does something special though; like Carpenter’s The Thing it’s that rare remake that not only reinvented the original but also vastly improved on it. Rather than just redoing a B with big bucks it reimagined and reconfigured it to make something distinctive and unbeholden. I enjoyed Ferrara’s military-base set Body Snatchers well enough, but I’ve not seen it in two decades; my abiding impression was that it felt truncated, in a hurry to get somewhere but not quite sure why. And while there’s no reason not to remake it every 15-20 years, there didn’t seem to be a particularly strong reason to go there that time. Coming up with a new setting (a military base!) seemed also the reasoning behind the 14 years on Invasion (Washington, politics). Who knows whether Oliver Hirschbiegel’s original cut had the brains of Kaufman’s movie, but the heavily reshot released version doesn’t. We’re only 7 years on from it, so there’s probably a few years yet until we get another. How about a world full of pods where the threat is from the humans, but we the audience sympathise with the pods? A world where everyone has gone to sleep, and no one is stirred to action by anything, plugged in and tuned out.
After all, Kaufman opines on the commentary “And we are now living in a world largely controlled by pods”. Of course, that can easily smack of the classic rebuke of an older generation seeing the world as gone to hell. As invariably every generation eventually does. It’s partly a way of telling ourselves we aren’t missing anything good, partly an admission that we are only “in-the-loop” for a short time, as well as touching on our common inability to move forward while our bodies face retreat. Kaufman’s film stands as the strongest interpretation of Jack Finney’s novel because it gets its humans right. To care about not becoming a pod you need to care about those under threat of becoming pods. It’s such a strong movie that if it hadn’t already been a remake some bright spark would have sequelised it by now (although that didn’t stop The Thing getting prequelised). Perhaps we should just be grateful that it has somehow evaded such dubious cachet. I don’t think the reason for this is it’s too cerebral; probably more that it isn’t gimmicky, except for that scream (which Ferrara nicked). Really, its blessing is that it’s much too much of a ‘70s movie to mount a follow-up.